On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill in Combat. By Lt. Col. Dave Grossman - This is a book that was recommended to me by my friend Jason over a year ago, and my only regret about reading it is that I didn't take his advice and read it sooner.
Undertaking a topic that has really never been covered in any great detail before, Lt. Col. Grossman goes in depth with a subject that I, along with most people, know very little about - the psychology of killing (and more specifically, the killing done by soldiers on the battle field). Drawing from extensive interviews as well as mountains of researchable data, Grossman dispels a lot of the myth that many of us have regarding the subject of killing, most of which has come from the Hollywood portrayal of such acts. Make no mistake, this is not a "how to" manual, but rather an in depth look at how adverse an action it is for a normal human being to take the life of another. It is simply not a normal thing to do, and the fact is, that most simply can not do it without the proper conditioning. The idea that soldiers can somehow march into battle and randomly kill with impunity is one that only exists on the big screen, as the author points out the immense psychological trauma endured by even the most hardened combat veterans.
Before reading On Killing, my view of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) was, admittedly, quite jaded. I saw it as veterans who just didn't want to face reality anymore, and that was their way out. My present view has, however, taken a 180 degree turn from that attitude. To read the interviews with WWII veterans who literally break down and cry some sixty years later at the very thought of a life that they took is humbling to say the least.
Our ideas of men in the Civil War, WWI, or WWII facing each other and mowing each other down in bloody combat is, to say the least, fantasy. As the author points out, only one man in five during WWII were actually willing to fire their weapon in combat. His prediction for Civil War era numbers are even lower. Keep in mind that these are infantrymen who are actually engaged in battle.
There is a large portion of the book dealing solely with the Vietnam War, and it's affect on service members. More specifically, how it was different than any other war, before or since, in how the people involved were affected psychologically speaking. If you were from that era, the author points out ideas that, while they may seem obvious upon reading, you may never have considered otherwise. I had discounted much of the talk regarding the mistreatment and negative psychological effects endured by many Vietnam vets before reading this book. Again, my thoughts and opinions have radically changed regarding this subject.
Grossman also spends a portion of the book discussing how modern media and video games are conditioning our children to kill. Although I am not totally sold on his theories, I must say that I at least have a new point of view. His relating of operant conditioning and behavioral conditioning to what is seen on the TV is an interesting concept. While I don't subscribe to it completely, I will say that his argument has some serious value and should be considered by anyone raising children.
There is simply far too much detail to cover in a review here. Suffice to say, this is a must read. Especially if you are in the military, but also if you are related to, or care about someone who is. And even if you are not, it is still a fascinating look into a subject that is very rarely (if ever) discussed in a serious, scholarly manor.
Grossman, a former Airborne Infantry and Ranger qualified officer and enlisted soldier, is now a psychology professor at West Point, as well as touring the country speaking on this very subject. It is a very well written, and easily accessible piece of literature that I highly recommend. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. You will not regret it.